Saturday, October 31, 2020

Book Chase: The November 2020 Reading Plan (First Half)

 It's hard to believe another month is already gone. Even under all of the COVID-19 restrictions, time seems to be flying by...another year almost gone. I've started to line up my reading for the next month, and if November turns out to be anything like the last two months, I'll need close to a dozen new titles for the month. This is what I'm planning on as the month begins, with more books to be added in the second half of November as needed:

A Rule Against Murder is the fourth Inspector Gamache novel in that series. I'm in the process of reading four of the books I've missed throughout the years, and I was able to get an audiobook version of this one from the library. Of course, I couldn't resist starting it a couple of days ago, so this will be the first one I finish in November. It's a little bit of an Agatha Christie scenario since the murder takes place at an isolated hotel in the Canadian woods and all the suspects are being kept from leaving until the crime is solved.

Truthtelling is a collection of short stories from Lynne Sharon Schwartz. I don't recall reading anything of Schwartz's before, but if the first couple of stories in the book are any indication, I think I'm going to enjoy the collection. The author has also written a book called Ruined by Reading, and that title fascinates me. It's definitely one I'm going to be getting my hands on sometime in the next few weeks. I see that this will be the sixth short story collection I've read in 2020. 

Good Eggs tells the story of a man who is having problems both with the behavior of his 83-year-old mother (chronic shoplifting for no apparent reason) and his rebellious teenaged daughter whom he is sending away to boarding school in desperation. The novel is set in Ireland, but the family is hoping that the American caretaker they've just hired to help out with the old lady will solve at least some of their problems. Of course, we all know that's not about to happen.

Bob: The Right Hand of God sounds like fun. It seems that Bob shows up on television one day (unfortunately for his message, that's on an April 1) to announce that God has decided to turn the planet into a theme park. People are disappearing everywhere, and on Easter Sunday those who are still around are given one last chance to "enter the light." Chet, who must be a little above average in the stubbornness department refuses to go...and now he's all alone. Maybe he should reconsider, if it's not already too late.

I'm going to read Dark Passage from this Library of America collection containing five "Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s." Part of my reading goal coming into 2020 was to read some of the novels published during the middle third of the 20th century, and this one fits nicely into that goal. Movie fans may remember this as a movie starring Humphrey Bogart - one I think I must have watched at some point in my life but remember nothing about. David Goodis is described as someone whose style helped "transform American culture and writing," so I'm expecting a lot from it.

I was blown away by The Birdwatcher, the first book in this series, so I'm looking forward to reading Salt Lane in November and moving on to the other two books in the series. The series is set on the Kentish coast, and Shaw uses the setting to full advantage in framing his plot and, more importantly I think, his characters. This time around, though, DS Alexandria Cupidi is going to take centerstage as the main character, a spot she unexpectedly assumed at the conclusion of The Birdwatcher.

So there you have it, the first half-dozen for the month of November. I do have at least a couple of others partially read right now, but they are fast losing steam and may well end up being, at least for now, abandoned, so I won't mention them today. 

I made my first two bookstore visits this week, and I was not surprised that both were relatively empty. Both, too, have removed all the pre-pandemic chairs and benches so that customers don't get so comfortable that they hang around for hours. I do think that's a wise, but sad, move. I had been in neither location since early March, and I was surprised by the major changes I found in one of them. More on that in the next few days...because I don't believe the explanation I received from the store manager regarding what I found in her bookstore.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Valdez Is Coming - Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard may be best known for his crime novels, many of which were made into successful Hollywood films, but he actually began his literary career writing Western short stories for the pulp magazines of the 1950s. Hollywood movies based on Leonard’s westerns include Hombre, 3:10 to Yuma, and Valdez Is Coming. Anyone interested in reading an Elmore Leonard western or two should consider the Library of America volume entitled Elmore Leonard: Westerns published in 2018 because it includes four novels (Last Stand at Saber River, Hombre, Valdez Is Coming, and Forty Lashes Less One) plus eight of his most outstanding western short stories. For those more inclined to short stories, there is also The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard published by William Morrow in 2004.

Valdez Is Coming is the story of a man who was known for most of his life as Roberto Valdez. Roberto was an army scout and an Apache-killing machine who was known to have taken a few scalps of his own (among other atrocities) in battle. But now he prefers to be known as Bob Valdez, a stagecoach security guard who also serves as town constable for a small community when he’s actually in town. Bob is still deadly with a shotgun or a Winchester, but the white men who employ him in town do so only to have someone stand between them and any Mexicans who come to town to cause trouble. They have no respect for Bob Valdez; he is just a tool they use for a job they are afraid to do for themselves. Valdez knows that, but to him it’s all just part of the job.

Then one day, during his role as town constable, Bob Valdez turns back into Roberto Valdez. 

It happens when Valdez arrives back in town just in time to find that a group of townspeople, led by a prominent cattleman, have trapped a black man and his Indian wife inside a sod cabin not far out of town. The cattleman claims that the man inside is wanted for a murder that occurred six months earlier, and the men are taking turns shooting into the cabin to see if the supposed killer will surrender. Valdez tries to defuse the situation, but Tanner, the cattleman, puts Valdez into a situation where he ends up killing the innocent man in self-defense. Now, Bob Valdez wants to do right by the man’s pregnant woman. It seems only right to him that the men involved collect $500 for the woman before she returns to her people to have the child. Unfortunately for Bob (and ultimately for the men), no one agrees with him.

Bottom Line: At roughly 240 pages, Valdez Is Coming is a relatively short novel, but it still manages to pack a punch. Roberto/Bob Valdez is a memorable character who has come to know right from wrong, and he will not take no for an answer when it comes to helping the wronged woman. Tanner is an evil man who surrounds himself with dozens of men willing to do most anything to impress him. The clash between the two men is memorable, but this is more than a revenge novel; this is a story about all the shades of grey between good and evil, and how one man deals with them. It is action-filled from the beginning, but it ends with a rather unexpected twist that lends depth to several of the characters. This is a good, old-fashioned western, for sure.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Miami Noir: The Classics

The series of crime story collections from Akashic Books is not new to me. Miami Noir: The Classics is, in fact, the fifteenth book in the series I’ve read and reviewed. It all started back in 2010 with my discovery of Mexico Noir, and I’ve looked forward to reading one or two of the collections every year since then. As their titles indicate, each of the books is a collection of darkish crime stories focused on one city or geographical area (Prison Noir being the one exception I’ve encountered so far). Some of the city-collections have been augmented by “classics” editions, and I’ve found those to be particularly helpful for readers interested in learning about some of the classic authors of the genre.

So, having already read and enjoyed Chicago: The Classics and New Orleans: The Classics, I was pleased to get my hands on Miami: The Classics. I was even happier to learn that this one is every bit as good as I hoped it would be. The collection features Miami-related crime stories written between 1925 and 2006, and it includes the work of some legendary authors. The Akashic collections are always divided into four sections of four or five stories each, and this time around those sections are titled: “Original Gangsters,” “Perilous Streets, Lethal Causeways,” “Miami’s Vices,” and “Gators & Ghouls.” 

The “Original Gangsters” section is aptly titled because it is home to the five oldest stories in the book, all produced from the mid-1920s to the mid-1940s. I was a bit surprised to find stories here by the likes of conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, novelist Zora Neal Hurston, and the prolific Damon Runyon, but their stories served as perfect mood-setters for what follows - and I really enjoyed the Douglas story, “Pineland.” I especially, though, enjoyed Brett Halliday’s (pen name of Davis Dresser) “A Taste of Cognac” as it serves as a perfect introduction to Mike Shayne, the character for whom Halliday is probably still best known. That story should be read by anyone wondering what the definition of a “noir” crime story really means. 

“Perilous Streets” includes stories by two old favorites of mine, Elmore Leonard and T.J. MacGregor, but I really hit my stride when I began reading the book’s third section, “Miami’s Vices.” The five stories in this third section were all written between 1996 and 1999, and they combine to capture that era perfectly. It includes two stories that pack quite a punch despite being two of the shortest in the book: Lynne Barrett’s “To Go” and John Dufresne’s “Lemonade and Paris Burn.” The Barrett story tells a tale about a woman who is on the road with her boss when he suddenly dies, and the Dufresne story is about four foster kids who flit through the life of a Miami man one day. This section also includes my two favorite stories in the collection: Edna Buchanan’s “The Red Shoes,” about a man with a foot fetish who breaks into the wrong apartment one night, and David Beatty’s “Ghosts,” a suspenseful story about a man marked for a revengeful death and the innocent family he carelessly places in peril.

The “Gators & Ghouls” section only has four stories in it, but they include another of my favorites, “Washington Avenue,” by Carolina Garcia-Aguilera. This 2001 story is a long, relatively complicated story about the gay bar scene in Miami’s South Beach area where six men have died, it seems, because they mixed alcohol with a specific drug known to be lethal in that combination. Private detective Lupe Solano finds it difficult to believe that six men could have been that stupid on one street in the same weekend. Garcia-Aguilera, herself a private investigator for thirty years, is best known for her Lupe Solano series - one that I want to know more about after reading this story.

Bottom Line: The stories in Miami Noir: The Classics vary in length from three pages to thirty-eight pages, and they cover almost a century of Miami crime story writing. Some of the stories are lighthearted, one is more fantasy than crime, and others are dark and ominous. As always, there is something here for everyone. If you haven’t discovered the Akashic Books noir collections yet, you are in for a treat.

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Monday, October 26, 2020

Happy Birthday, Pat Conroy. We Miss You.

October 26, 2020, marks what would have been Pat Conroy's 75th birthday if Pat had not died in March 2016 at age 70. Pat wasn't the most prolific author in the world, but he left behind some of my favorite books, and I will be forever grateful to him for that.

The man, in fact, only published eleven books during his forty-year career, sometimes going six or seven years between books, and in the process, driving his fans to the point of nerd-hysteria when a new title was finally announced. There was even a fourteen-year stretch between his last two novels, Beach Music and South of Broad. Five of the eleven books are novels (unless The Boo is counted as a novel, and honestly, I'm still not entirely certain how to classify that one), one is a memoir of his college basketball team days, one is a cookbook, one a memoir about his early days as a school teacher, another is a book about his own favorite books and how he became a reader and writer, and the last one published before his death tells of his long overdue reconciliation with his father. 

A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writer's Life, a 12th book, was published a few months after Pat's death. This one is a collection of the author's interviews, speeches, letters, and the like, and collectors of Conroy's work should definitely have it on their shelves. It includes a touching introduction by Casandra King, the author's wife, and it includes tributes from some of the people whose lives Pat impacted with his own. 

This is what Pat Conroy left behind:

  • The Boo - 1970
  • The Water Is Wide - 1972
  • The Great Santini - 1976
  • The Lords of Discipline - 1980
  • The Prince of Tides - 1986
  • Beach Music - 1995
  • My Losing Season - 2002
  • The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life - 2004
  • South of Broad - 2009
  • My Reading Life - 2010
  • The Death of Santini - 2013
  • A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life - 2016
(I've highlighted the ones previously reviewed on Book Chase; but do a Book Chase search on "Pat Conroy" and you will find numerous posts I made about the man over the years. I'm surprised, myself, at how many there are.)

Saturday, October 24, 2020

We Begin at the End - Chris Whitaker

Only after turning the last page of Chris Whitaker’s We Begin at the End, did I learn that Mr. Whitaker is a British author and that the novel has done quite well in the U.K this year (it will be published in the U.S. in March 2021). I mention this only because We Begin at the End is so much an “American” novel in tone and point-of-view that I never even thought to check into the author’s background. 

This is one of those novels for which a reviewer needs to take special care not to inadvertently release any spoilers, so I’ll do my best not to mention anything that is not already revealed on the novel’s book flap. Just know going in, that this is a novel filled with the kind of surprises and revelations that you will dying to talk about with your friends after they’ve enjoyed We Begin at the End for themselves. 

Thirty years earlier, Walk, now chief of police in his small California beach town, gave the testimony that sent his best friend to prison. Now, that friend is being released back into the community, and Walk desperately wants to help him to make the most of the rest of his life. Vincent King, though, is both mentally and physically scarred by his years in prison, and all he wants from the people of Cape Haven, California, is to be left alone as he works at restoring his old family home. But it won’t be that easy for any of them. People are going to die…several of them. 

We Begin at the End has a terrific plot, one filled with so many twists and turns that it’s hard not to feel as if you’re on a runaway train as you approach the book’s final few chapters. But that brings me back to how easy it would be to spoil this novel for those yet to read it. Just about every time you feel as if all has finally been revealed, something else just as surprising comes along, and then you think surely that’s it - right up until the next twist in the plot jolts you. That’s a big part of the fun of We Begin at the End, but it can only truly be experienced at its best by those who pick it up knowing next to nothing about the plot details. 

Chris Whitaker
The complicated plot is all made possible by a cast of memorable characters, beginning with the self-categorized thirteen-year-old “Outlaw Duchess Day Radley,” a little girl who is proud of the outlaw blood in her family tree and only wishes there was more of it. Duchess has grown up quickly because she knows it is entirely up to her to take care of her drug-addicted mother and Robin, her six-year-old brother. She is fearless, and after she learns to shoot a pistol, she is dangerous. Robin is an emotionally traumatized little boy who clings to his sister for the emotional support that allows him to get through another day. Walk and Vincent King are complicated, memorable characters, too, but it is some of the secondary characters that will stay with me the longest, particularly those who appear in the second half of the book to play large roles in the lives of the children. 

Bottom Line: This is a book about half-truths, shades of grey, and secrets. Every character in the book seems to have secrets that they refuse to give up or try to justify even to themselves. It is a story about the loyalty of family and friends, and how that loyalty can so easily be misplaced or misunderstood. It is a story about good intentions going very badly, and it is a story of redemption. Don’t miss it.

Review Copy provided by Publisher 

Friday, October 23, 2020

Garden of Stones - Sophie Littlefield

I’ve read two other Sophie Littlefield novels (A Bad Day for Pretty and The Missing Place), so I thought I knew what to expect from the author. As it turns out, I was only partially right about that, and that’s both good and bad news. The good news is that the plot of Garden of Stones is every bit as intriguing as I suspected it would be; the bad news is that the novel suffers from exactly the same flaw that bothered me in The Missing Place – more on that later. 

Garden of Stones is a historical fiction study of what it may have been like for a beautiful Japanese widow and her fourteen-year-old daughter to be on their own inside a West Coast internment/concentration camp during World War II. The internees/prisoners are entirely at the mercy of the staff in charge of their day-to-day existence and all of their activities at the Manzanar camp, and it is only a matter of time before bad things begin to happen to the extraordinarily beautiful Miyako Takeda – and then to her daughter Lucy. Miyako is being sexually exploited, as are numerous others in the camp, and she will do anything, absolutely anything, to keep the same from happening to Lucy. 

The story begins during the summer of 1978 and is told largely through the eyes of Patty Takeda, Lucy’s about-to-be-married daughter. Patty never knew Miyako, her grandmother, and Lucy has told her very little about her own experiences inside Manzanar. But now, almost forty years later, after the police suddenly accuse Lucy of murdering one of her neighbors, all that is about to change. If Patty is going to be able to defend her mother from the murder charges, she is going to have to know exactly what happened to Miyako and Lucy in 1942. But when Patty discovers old photo albums among the dead man’s possessions, she realizes just how seriously in trouble her mother really is. 

Early on, the story begins flashing back and forth between 1942 and 1978, and for most of the book, the reader knows more about what really happened in Manzanar than Patty knows. We know the truth, for instance, about Lucy’s horribly disfigured face – which is how she was placed near the murder scene by witnesses – long before it is revealed to Patty, who has never known her mother not to be disfigured. We know that Lucy has good reason to be bitter about her past, and that the murdered neighbor was more than he seems. Part of the novel’s intrigue is watching Patty try to catch up with the rest of us as her mother’s sad story is steadily revealed. 

Sophie Littlefield
And then, about eighty or ninety percent of the way through the story, just as happened in Littlefield’s The Missing Place, everything is rushed to its conclusion with one revelation after the other – so many of them, so quickly, that it is almost overwhelming. The story is told in such an out-of-balance way, that it ends up feeling top-heavy and contrived. There are so many “big reveals” that I began to lose track of them, and was left feeling a bit frustrated by such a drastic and sudden change of pace. 

Bottom Line: Garden of Stones tells a good story, but Littlefield’s rushed ending lessens its impact by reminding the reader that they may not have been provided with all the clues necessary to answer some very important questions on their own. Whether that’s a fair approach or not may be open to question, but I find it frustrating enough to make me wary about investing time in another Sophie Littlefield novel now that it’s happened in two of the three novels of hers I’ve read.

Audiobook fans will be pleased to note that veteran narrator Emily Woo Zeller does a very good job with Garden of Stones. Her voice is pleasant, and it lends itself well to distinguishing the various characters from one another. Too, her reading-pace nicely keeps the action moving.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Bill Bryson Calls It Quits - No More Notes from Small Islands

Bill Bryson (photo from The Independent)

I've seen several articles these last few days in which author Bill Bryson has announced his retirement. I wasn't all that surprised when Philip Roth made a similar announcement at age 79, but I have to admit that the 68-year-old Bryson's announcement does surprise me. I just can't imagine a man of his talent calling it quits at so young an age.

As shown from this Bryson quote reprinted in The Guardian, Bryson is enjoying life right now and feels not the slightest urge to "pick up his pen" ever again:

 “I don’t know how much of this is pandemic-related [but] I’m really quite enjoying not doing anything at all. For the first time in literally decades I’ve been reading for pleasure and I’m really enjoying it. Whatever time is left to me on this planet I’d like to spend it indulging myself, rather than going out and trying to cover new territory.”


“I was worried, as I think most writers would be, that maybe I would run out of things to do in my leisure time, or that I would just miss having an occupation, professional distractions … but so far that hasn’t been the case,” he said. “The world is full of lots of other things you could do that are enjoyable without any of the pressures that come with trying to do these things as a job.”

I see from my notes that I've been reading Bill Bryson books since 1989, beginning with Neither Here Nor There, but that I haven't read him since 2018 when I enjoyed One Summer so much. In all, I've read eleven of Bryson's books, but a little digging this afternoon shows me that, with a little effort to find them, I still have quite a few Bryson books to look forward to - especially since most of the ones I've read are among the author's travel books.

Bryson's travel books include:

  • The Palace Under the Alps
  • The Lost Continent
  • Neither Here Nor There
  • Notes from a Small Island
  • A Walk in the Woods
  • I'm a Stranger Here Myself
  • In a Sunburned Country
  • Bill Bryson's African Diary
  • The Road to Little Dribbling 
 He's also written several science books, a memoir, and some history in recent years:

And there are a few others, including several language books.

If this is truly the end of the line for Bryson, I'm going to miss him. Let's hope that maybe he'll discover that he just needed a nice long break before he finds his second wind. 

(The three highlighted titles link to reviews previously posted here.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Next Up - November Reading Is Shaping Up Already

 I've already managed to put a pretty good dent in my planned reading for October, and now November is starting to shape up. Some of the November books were not even on my radar just a couple of weeks ago, but I'm really starting to look forward to them:

I picked up this 450-page whopper just this morning at my library after wading through a long line of early-voters who were waiting to get inside. This is, of course, the second book in the DS. Alex Cupidi series, and it follows The Birdwatcher book that I reviewed a couple of days back. I especially like the cover of this one because it captures the Kentish setting so well - and I assume that's Cupidi in the foreground. This one is long, but the pages don't have that dense look to them, so it should go rather quickly. 

I've managed to get my hands on another review copy of the Akashic Books series of dark crime stories, and I'm impressed by the way it's organized. The stories were published between 1935 and 2006, so some of them are obviously more "classic" than others. The earliest of the stories are written by authors like Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Damon Runyon, Zora Neale Hurston, and they range from 4 to 38 pages in length. There are 19 stories in all. 

I'm not familiar with author Chris Whitaker, but this, his third novel, is already getting a lot of attention and it won't even be published until March 2021. One of the blurbs I saw about it (and I don't trust blurbs for lots of reasons) was so over the top that it called We Begin at the End "a West Coast Where the Crawdads Sing." Well, we'll see about that. I've actually read about 20 pages of this one already, and I found the writing to be a little bit "clunky." Looking forward, though, to getting deeper into it. I think this cover is a real eye-catcher - and that's exactly how I first spotted it.

I'm not at all sure what to think about this one. First, it is a fake book, and V.M. Straka, who is shown as the author, is actually a fictional character in the story. The book is made to look like it's a stolen library book, including all the library markings and card-pouches that libraries used to use. It is being used as a way of communication by two people who are simultaneously reading or re-reading the book and adding margin notes throughout, so it's like reading two novels at the same time. It even includes a special packet of "clues" to what's going on: postcards, newspaper clippings, photos, etc. that add to the whole illusion they are going for. I have a feeling that this is either going to be very, very good or very, very bad. At least I hope so, because I don't want to finish it with a shrug. I'd much rather love it - or abandon it early on. 

So there you have it. These are four I'm already looking forward to, and I expect there will be at least four others coming along shortly - including an audiobook version of Louise Penny's fourth Inspector Gamache novel, A Rule Against Murder (2008).

Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Western Star - Craig Johnson

The Western Star
(2017) is the thirteenth novel in Craig Johnson’s now sixteen-book-long series featuring Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire. The Longmire series began in 2004 with The Cold Dish, and Johnson has pretty much been adding a new volume to the Longmire story once a year ever since. There are even three short story collections, two novellas, and one standalone e-book short story about the sheriff, all published between 2012 and 2016. That’s a lot of Walt Longmire for fans to enjoy, but for whatever reason, I found myself still not having read the middle-bunch of the novels, books 9-13 or the story collections. Now, I can mark book 13 off that list. 

As it turns out, The Western Star answers all of the questions I had about the next book in the series, Depth of Winter, so I would strongly recommend reading these two in the order in which they were published. That’s not to say that Depth of Winter doesn’t work well as a standalone, because it does. I just think that it would be so much more enjoyable to read these two back-to-back now that both of them have been published because they combine to tell what is essentially one long story about Walt and his daughter Cady. 

Even though Johnson deftly moves in and out of his three separate plotlines, The Western Star is a little complicated. One plotline flashes all the way back to 1972 when Longmire is a brand new deputy sheriff of two-weeks experience. A second takes place in the present and sees Longmire in Cheyenne to offer his testimony at a probation hearing just as he has done every four years since the incarcerated killer has been eligible for parole. And a third, which is really a part of the 1972 plotline, explores the relationship between Longmire and his new wife, a relationship that is on the brink of ending in divorce even though his wife is four months pregnant. 

All the usual suspects are involved in keeping Walt safe from those who wish him harm – and from himself and his tendency to just jump in with both feet no matter the personal danger – in this one. Lucian Connolly, the old sheriff who first hired Longmire is there mostly for moral support; Vic Moretti is around to take the heat off of Longmire as often as she can; and Henry Standing Bear is there to do any-and-everything it takes to help out his best friend. Henry and Walt have had a bond since the Vietnam War, and almost half a century later, it is as strong as ever. 

Craig Johnson
Present-day action takes place in November on a special train full of Wyoming sheriffs. The “Western Star” is a vintage “excursion” train that stops every two hours on its way to deliver all the sheriffs to their Wyoming Sheriffs’ Association meeting, and when one of them is murdered, another disappears, and Longmire himself is knocked cold and left for dead on the tracks, Walt Longmire decides that maybe, just maybe, law enforcement is not something he really wants to do with the rest of his life. 

The Western Star is Craig Johnson’s tribute to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, and Johnson does himself and Christie proud. Johnson even has Longmire carry a copy of the Christie novel around in his back pocket for most of The Western Star despite Longmire’s inability to get past the last chapter of Part II of the novel before his reading time abruptly ends. But no matter how many times that book slips out of Longmire’s pocket, he always manages to retrieve it just in case he might want to slip in a page or two later on. 

Bottom Line: The Western Star is an important book in the Longmire series because it provides so much of Walt’s backstory. It is also a key book in the sense that it portends the near-estrangement between Longmire and his daughter that becomes a key issue in the books to follow. In many ways, The Western Star is great fun, but this is a serious book, and it does not end well for Longmire and what’s left of his family. Just be thankful that you won’t have to wait a whole year to find out what happens next…Depth of Winter was published in 2018.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Birdwatcher - William Shaw

I missed William Shaw’s 2016 novel The Birdwatcher when it was first published, but thanks to a reference made to the novel on a favorite book blog of mine back in August, I’ve now taken care of that oversight. And I’m glad I did, because The Birdwatcher is special. In my experience, the best crime fiction is characterized by well-developed characters and a vivid setting even more often than it is by plot – and The Birdwatcher has both of those in spades. 

William South, a small-town English cop, is the main character of the novel, and the book’s first three sentences tell you exactly how South thinks of himself (punctuated here exactly as in the book): 

“There were two reasons why William South did not want to be on the murder team. 

     The first was that it was October. The migrating birds had begun arriving on the coast. 

     The second was that, though nobody knew, he was a murderer himself.” 

Strangely enough, it is because South is both a dedicated birdwatcher and a murderer himself, that he is such a good cop. The man understands people and what they are capable of doing if pressed hard enough by circumstances, and his observational skills and patience ensure that very little gets past him. South, however, is not a homicide investigator, and he’s never worked a murder case. He is more the kind of small-town cop who gets called upon to be first at the scene of road accidents, burglaries, and noise complaints. So South has good reason to suspect that he’s already in over his head, but when the victim turns out to be his own best friend, he really wants no part of the investigation. 

William Shaw
His new boss, the recently arrived Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi, though, will not let South off the hook so easily. South is the neighborhood police officer for the Kent neighborhood in which his friend’s brutally beaten body was found, and Cupidi knows that he will be invaluable in getting her first investigation off to the impressive start she so badly needs. Cupidi, recently displaced from her old London precinct, is determined to make a positive impression on her own new bosses – and South is going to help her do that whether he wants to do it or not. But when the supposed killer turns out to be a man from South’s own Northern Ireland hometown, and is the very man who can most readily tie South back to the past he has kept hidden for so many years, he realizes that this investigation – and his new boss – may finally uncover all of his secrets. And he can’t have that. 

Bottom Line: The Birdwatcher is brilliantly constructed, revealing little by little who William South is and whether such a good man, a man who has spent his entire adult life enforcing the law, is really capable of murder. Equally compelling, is the gradual development of the rather unlikable character DS Alex Cupidi, a pushy woman who puts career achievement before everything else in her life, including it seems, her daughter Zoë. 

I knew enough about The Birdwatcher from the previously mentioned book blog to know that it is a prequel to a series even though it’s sometimes billed as a standalone rather than as the first book in the series. What I did not know, however, greatly surprised me, because the whole time I was reading The Birdwatcher I was anticipating reading the rest of the “William South series.” As it turns out, I should have been anticipating the “DS Alex Cupidi” series, instead. Of the three main characters in The Birdwatcher (South, Cupidi, and Zoë), the self-centered Cupidi is the last one I would have expected to become the basis for a detective series of her own. Those who read the first Cupidi-labeled novel before reading The Birdwatcher will have missed out on that bit of fun. William Shaw, though, is such a talented writer, that I can’t wait to see how he turns Alex Cupidi into a character I want to read about more than once. And that should be even more fun.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Anxious People - Fredrik Backman

There are books that you experience, and there are books that you simply read - and seldom can you predict which type you are about to begin. For me, watching Fredrik Backman’s latest novel, Anxious People, quirkily evolve from what starts out as a farce into a novel with multiple serious messages, was an experience I will not soon forget. The novel is so cleverly constructed that even with several little asides aimed directly at the reader, it remains difficult until relatively near the end to fully appreciate where Backman is headed. Take, for instance, these observations that Backman makes as his story progresses:

     “One single bad idea. That’s all it takes.” – page 2 

     “This is a story about a bank robbery, an apartment viewing, and a hostage drama. But even more it’s a story about idiots. But perhaps not only that.” Page 98 

     “This, for instance, might not actually be the story of a bank robbery, or an apartment viewing, or a hostage drama. Perhaps it isn’t even a story about idiots.” – Page 103 

     “It’s harder than you think to take people hostage when they’re idiots.” – Page 122 

     “The truth? It’s hardly ever as complicated as we think. We just hope it is, because then we can feel smarter if we can work it out in advance. This is a story about a bridge, and idiots, and a hostage drama, and an apartment viewing. But it’s also a love story. Several, in fact.” – Page 215 

What this is, is a story about a bank robbery that never took place, an anxious “bank robber” trying to find a place to hide from the police, an equally anxious and irritable bunch of strangers at an apartment open-house who accidentally become hostages, and a father-son cop duo with plenty of family anxieties of their own with which to deal. And, because this is a Fredrik Backman book, Anxious People is brilliant. 

Fredrik Backman
The best thing about Anxious People is Backman’s cast of characters, each of whom is gifted with the kind of personality quirks that make them individually human and memorable, something that’s become a trademark of Fredrik Backman novels. I’ve read everything of Backman’s that’s been published in the U.S., and it’s his characters that are still most vivid in my mind from the previous novels – especially the way they evolve over the length of his stories. Simply put, Backman has hit another home run. 

The accidental hostages and the incompetent bank robber are not the people they at first seem to be. True, none of them appear to be particularly happy, even the two married couples there, and they obviously don’t trust each other even a little because they see the apartment viewing as some sort of weird competition to see who can negotiate the best purchase price. But now they are stuck together for hours – or who knows how long – and they are going to get to know each other better whether they want to or not. So now what? 

Bottom Line: Anxious People is another in a string of Fredrik Backman winners. It’s a good story about strange, but interesting, people, and you can’t help but root for all of them along the way…even the ones who drive you a little crazy along the way.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Next to Last Stand - Craig Johnson

The good news about Craig Johnson’s sixteenth Walt Longmire novel, Next to Last Stand, is that it entirely takes place on Longmire’s Wyoming turf. But the best thing, really, about this new one is that Johnson makes almost all of the series secondary characters integral parts of his story. As good as the last two books in the series have been, both books (for longtime series fans) suffered from the near-disappearance of characters such as Longmire’s best friend Henry Standing Bear; his daughter, Cady; his undersheriff and love interest, Vic Moretti; his dispatcher and organizer, Ruby; and former sheriff Lucian Connally. The bad news is that the Longmire is still on the outs with Cady, meaning that her only appearance in Next to Last Stand comes via conversational third-party references. 

Of course, the “last stand” referenced in the title of Next to Last Stand refers to George Armstrong Custer’s fiasco at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a fight during which he and almost his entire army were slaughtered by an overwhelming number of American Indian soldiers. Twelve years later, in 1888, an otherwise unexceptional painter called Cassily Adams produced a large painting of Custer’s portion of the battlefield. The painting was sold to a St. Louis bartender who hung it over his bar but lost it (along with his bar) four years later as payout on a $35,000 debt to Adolphus Busch. The painting, which was destroyed in a 1946 fire, is still famous today because Budweiser made it a prominent part of its advertising for decades by producing over one million copies of the painting. 

But what if the painting really survived the fire? What would it be worth today, and what would an unscrupulous collector be willing to pay for it? (The real painting actually was destroyed.) 

When Charlie Lee Stillwater dies from an apparent heart attack at the Veterans’ Home of Wyoming, Walt Longmire is saddened by the man’s sudden, but not all that unexpected, death. It is only when looking around the old black man’s room at the home that Walt learns how knowledgeable Charlie was about art and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Then, when Walt discovers an old boot-box stuffed with a million dollars in unmarked $100-dollar bills, along with a partial painting that reminds him of Custer’s big mistake, all the alarm bells in his mind start ringing at the same time. Just who was his old friend Charlie Lee Stillwater and what was he up to before he died? Walt is going to figure it out – and try to survive the process of doing it. 

Craig Johnson
I should note that in Next to Last Stand readers will continue to watch Walt suffer from the aftermath of what happened to him in Mexico two books earlier in Depth of Winter. Walt is really feeling his age and the way it slows him down, but he keeps throwing his body into the chase as if he were a man ten or fifteen years younger than he is. And he’s finding out the hard way how bad an idea that is. As a reader, I’m starting to worry a bit that Johnson is hinting that Walt is about to retire as sheriff of Absaroka County, realizing all the while that that would not necessarily mark the end of the series. Many a series has continued after the retirement of its main character – think, John Rebus or Harry Bosch – so Longmire’s retirement could just mark a shift in his perspective. The book does end on a rather ominous note, however, when the sheriff finally contacts his “estranged” daughter Cady by phones and begins the conversation with the words, “Hey, Punk, I’ve got some sad news.” Those are, in fact, the very last words of Next to Last Stand. 

Bottom Line: Next to Last Stand is particular fun for readers who grew up hearing stories about General George Armstrong Custer and the way he managed to so abruptly end his military career. The portion of the book during which Henry Standing Bear, Walt, and Vic visit the battleground is a particular joy to read. Too, readers who have visited the Buffalo Bill Cody museum in Cody, Wyoming, will enjoy the segment of the book that takes place there because of the insights into what goes on behind the scenes of that wonderful museum. This is a memorable addition to the Walt Longmire series.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

With This Pledge - Tamera Alexander

I don’t much like the cover of Tamera Alexander’s 2019 novel With This Pledge, but strangely enough, it was that cover that got me to read the book. I have been intrigued by the Civil War’s Battle of Franklin and its aftermath for decades, and have visited the house pictured in the background of the cover several times because of what happened there in late 1864. Visiting places like Carnton (the name of the house and plantation) always makes me realize that 1864 is really not all that long ago. My grandparents’ grandfathers fought on both sides of the Civil War, one a Louisiana infantryman, the other a calvary sergeant who was one of only a few hundred Texans to fight on the side of the Union. My grandparents had memories of both men. 

The cover, though, has the feel more of a run-of-the-mill romance novel than it does of a more serious piece of historical fiction. Even the author-description on the backflap of the cover (which I only read five minutes ago) calls the author “one of today’s most popular writers of inspirational historical romance.” And to top it off, the book is rather quietly billed as “Christian fiction,” something I didn’t even realize until I was almost finished with the novel. I admit to being skeptical of both genres when I’m looking for something to read, so I’m still a bit surprised that I read With This Pledge at all. All of that said, I’m glad that I did because, as it turns out, the romance at the core of With This Pledge actually happened, and with just a couple of exceptions, the letters used in the book are real. That, I believe, helped Alexander keep her fictional characters true to their real-life identities while she anchored her account of the aftermath of the Battle of Franklin around their personal experiences. 

Tamera Alexander
The Battle of Franklin, much of which took place in sight of Carnton Plantation, lasted for five hours and when it was over 10,000 men were either dead, wounded, or in the hands of the enemy. Carnton, so close to the fighting, was claimed as a field hospital by a segment of the Confederate Army, and long before the battle was over the house and its grounds were filled with dead or dying soldiers. Lizzie Clouston, the young governess and teacher to the McGavock children, much to her shock, soon finds herself assisting an army doctor as he amputates limb after limb from the wounded. 

Captain Roland Ward Jones is one of those wounded men. Jones’s legs are so badly shattered that the doctor insists that he will die if the right one is not amputated. Jones, however, strongly states that he would rather die than to have that happen, and he makes Lizzie promise that she will not allow the doctor to amputate. Somehow, Lizzie does manage to keep the doctor from doing what he knows offers the captain his best chance of surviving the battle, and Captain Jones wakes up with two legs. The captain faces a long recovery at Carnton, allowing him and Lizzie the time they need to explore their budding romance, a romance complicated by the fact that Lizzie is already engaged to a young soldier she grew up with in Franklin. 

Bottom Line: With This Pledge is a romance novel by any definition, but Alexander does an excellent job of describing a Civil War battlefield and the horrors that the weapons of the day were capable of inflicting on a human body. She vividly portrays what happens to the locals after the warring armies have moved on and left behind their severely wounded. Carnton was the final resting place for hundreds of soldiers, and almost three dozen others were left behind until they had recovered enough to be moved to a Federal prison camp. This is their story. (And apparently, Captain Jones and Miss Clouston had time for a classic romance in the meantime.)

Thursday, October 08, 2020

The Ruthless - David Putnam

I first encountered David Putnam's LA County Sheriff Bruno Johnson back in 2018 in The Innocents, a book that was clearly labeled “The Early Years: Book One.” But, honestly, I didn’t think much about that label at the time. In The Innocents Bruno is a brand new sheriff’s deputy whose first assignment is to work his way inside a group of dirty narcotics cops to help bust them – not a great way to start off a law enforcement career. Little did I know that my next encounter with Bruno would be 2021’s The Ruthless, the fourth and final “Early Years” book. 

The unusual thing about the Bruno Johnson series is that coming late to it may turn out to be as much a positive as a negative thing for readers. That’s because the first four books in the series (all published between 2014 and 2017) are “real time” novels in which Bruno is an ex-cop doing his best to save children from those who wish them harm. The “early years” books explain how Bruno became the man he is today, and why he is such a staunch children’s advocate. Consequently, readers who feel more comfortable reading a series in chronological order, may want to read the second four books in this so-far, eight-book series first. 

David Putnam
In The Innocents, Bruno only learns that he is a father when his ex-girlfriend knocks on his door and hands him a baby girl just a few weeks old. Never one to shirk responsibility, Bruno, with the help of his father, begins to raise the little girl. Now, in The Ruthless, that little girl, Olivia, has twin baby sons of her own, fathered by a street thug the world calls her common-law husband. To make matters worse, one of the little boys has disappeared, and Bruno can’t get any answers that make sense. 

Bruno Johnson is all about family, and as he sees it, not only has he failed to protect his daughter from the likes of Derek Sams, he hasn’t even managed to protect his innocent grandsons from the man. His home life already in tatters, Bruno is also on the outs with his longtime sheriff’s department partner, and is feeling guilty about the lies and half-truths he’s having to tell his father. And just when he thinks it can’t get any worse, two close friends of his, a superior court judge and the judge’s wife are brutally shotgunned to death inside their own garage. Bruno wants to fix all of it – or at least make someone pay – even if he ruins the rest of his life in the process. 

Bottom Line: Bruno Johnson is one of the most interesting and complex series characters to come along in a while. He is a man with a strong moral code who is willing to break that code for the greater good when it comes to that. He is a family man who loves his daughter, grandsons, and father more than he loves life itself. He is a black man operating in a world in which it sometimes seems that those on neither side of the law enforcement equation really trust him. And he’s definitely a man I want to know more about, so luckily for me I’ve barely scratched the surface of this intriguing series. I'll let you decide where you want to start the Bruno Johnson series, just get started, because this is not a series you want to miss out on. 

Review Copy provided by Oceanview Publishing

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Trailer for New John Belushi Showtime Documentary


I remember March 6, 1982 like it was yesterday. That's the day I heard that John Belushi had died of an overdose, the day I cursed the drug culture out loud for claiming yet another of my favorite entertainers. Now, all these years later, Showtime is ready to debut a new documentary on Belushi's life - and death. 

Many of the people who knew him best participated in the film, so I'm hoping that it will be an honest, no-holds-barred, look at the man and the reckless lifestyle he and his friends were living in the early '80s. Among those who shared cocaine with Belushi on the last night of his life were Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, but they are barely the tip of the iceberg. I've read some of the books about Saturday Night Live and others about Belushi's life, but somehow, seeing Belushi in a documentary makes it seem even more real to me. 

I'm not a Showtime subscriber, so I may have to time a 7-day free trial just right in order to get a look at this one. 

This is the way I like to remember John:

"I give so much pleasure to so many people. Why can I not get some pleasure for myself?"  - John Belushi

Monday, October 05, 2020

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter - Theodora Goss

The first thing you need to know about The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is how much fun reading it is – especially if you grew up on books like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells. Frankenstein was published in 1818, so Shelley may have been a little ahead of her time, but there is no doubt that Victorian society was fascinated by books like hers and the other two mentioned (published in 1886 and 1896, respectively). 

Two hundred years after the first appearance of Frankenstein’s monster, Theodora Goss has written a mashup novel that includes these three mad scientists and others like them. The men have formed a secret society, and they continue to experiment on living creatures (and dead ones) to see just what new kind of being they can create. Now, it seems that no one can stop them but their own daughters, most of whom themselves have been drastically altered by their own fathers into something no human was ever intended to be – oh, and Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Let’s not forget those two. 

Theodora Goss
Other than Holmes and Watson, the main characters of the novel are Mary Jekyll, her sister Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherin Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein. One of them has a breath so poisonous that it kills anything that comes too close, one is a cross between a panther and a human, one has been reanimated and physically enhanced after having been hanged to death, one is a rebellious teen, and the other matches wits with Mr. Holmes with relative ease. At first, it is sheer necessity that forces the women team up in order to fight those who want so badly to return them to their fathers’ laboratories. But soon enough, something funny begins to happen: the women become a family of sisters more than capable of taking care of themselves. So that’s what they do. 

Kate Reading
The audiobook version of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is read by Kate Reading (is that the perfect name for an audiobook narrator, or what?). Reading is a veteran of numerous audiobooks in the fantasy genre, such as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, so she is probably already familiar to many fantasy fans. Her skill of using multiple accents and voice-variations to individualize so many main characters is exceptional, and adds to the fun. 

Bottom Line: Readers looking to escape the horrors of 2020 for a few hours will not go wrong by choosing Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter as a temporary diversion.